Archive for August, 2010

Nobody is reporting this very heavily, but the drought and subsequent really enormous fires in Russia are having an impact way beyond Russia’s borders.  Specifically, a lot of arable land, used to raise wheat, suffered through a serious drought, and then burned, taking with it a big chunk of Russia’s, and indeed the world’s, wheat production.  We are being set up for another serious spike in wheat prices, and therefore food prices, worldwide.

NPR’s reporting on this issue is very optimistic. But the problem here is that the optimism is very, very selective.  When the chief executive of the International Food & Agricultural Trade Policy Council, says “U.S. producers will be able to step up to the plate and meet global demand that’s not presently being met by Russian wheat producers,” she is correct . . . assuming that nothing else will go wrong this year that might compromise wheat production elsewhere.  In 2008, the wheat price spike was driven by the convergence of a rise in biofuels production, a drought in Australia, and some fairly shadowy financial instruments that may have generated a commodity bubble around wheat.  In other words, a lot of stuff went wrong at once.  Given the uncertainty we see in the global economy, and the rising climate variability in wheat production centers like Southern Africa, arguing that nothing else will go wrong strikes me as a really weak bet.

Yes, US farmers will profit mightily from an increased demand for their wheat – but if demand outstrips supply, which seems increasingly likely as we move into the fall, everyone from the global poor to the average US consumer is going to feel the impact of rising food prices again.  Right now, nobody is doing anything to address this likelihood, and a reactive approach to food price spikes never solves the problem in time to matter for those most affected . . . anyone want to get proactive about this, please?

Yep, the InterAcademy Council more or less stated that the overall findings of the IPCC are not in question.  However, they did raise some interesting issues with regard to structure and leadership that should be taken seriously.  Admittedly, I have selfish reasons for this – as the review editor for one of the chapters of AR5, how the IPCC chooses to deal with comments and suggestions during the review process will have a very large impact on my life and workload starting in the summer of 2012 . . .

While I have written on this blog about the IPCC’s need to be more transparent in its workings, there comes a point where the constant barrage of reports and studies of previous IPCC findings becomes a serious problem.  Yes, another report, this time about the issue of glaciers in the Himalayas in the previous IPCC assessment report (AR4).  Despite fairly intense efforts to discredit AR4 – coming under the heading of “climategate” (people saying dumb things, and sometimes not so dumb things that were willfully misconstrued, on e-mails that were stolen from a server at a major climate research center) and Himalayagate (where the working group I recently joined relied on a bit of non-peer reviewed literature from an otherwise reputable source – called grey literature in scientific jargon – that turned out to be wrong), the reports on AR4 (yep, reports on the report) have yet to question the overall findings of the IPCC to this point.  Some see this as evidence of a conspiracy, where the inquiries into the IPCC and its findings are already corrupt and unable to come to independent conclusions.  Personally, I have a bit of difficulty believing in such a wide-ranging, well-coordinated conspiracy.  Maybe, just maybe, the findings are as close to valid as we can verify under current knowledge.  Maybe?

Anyway, my complaint here is not really with yet another inquiry into the IPCC – I’d bet my house that the inquiry will not challenge the larger findings of AR4.  However, when all that ever reaches the news is a constant barrage of reports on the findings of inquiries into supposed misdeeds on the part of the IPCC, it is hard to blame the general public for doubting the validity of its findings.

All of this goes back to a much earlier post that got a lot of attention, especially considering how remarkably simple its central point was: we need to be very transparent in what we do going forward.  That, and as Bob Watson, former head of the IPCC and a colleague from the Millennium Assessment and GEO-4, noted about the “Himalayagate issue”:

“To me the fundamental problem was that when the error was found it was handled in a totally and utterly atrocious manner.”

Yep.  The IPCC, and indeed most major environmental assessments, really need to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes we will be wrong – that is the nature of knowledge, let alone science – and we need to start engaging the professionals when it comes to PR.  I have it firsthand from Pachauri that the IPCC is fully engaged in such an effort (PR, that is), and has been for some time.  Good.  We recruit scientific experts for their special abilities, but somehow we resist recruiting PR people?  To quote the physics Nobelist Erwin Schroedinger, “If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless”.  To take it another step, if we cannot honestly and clearly communicate what we do and don’t know, and when we get things wrong, than whatever we have done right will be lost in the maelstrom.

Oh, and can we get a new tag for scandals?  Himalayagate?  Really?  Could we find a more odd combination of geography to cram into a single word?

Best State Department tweet ever?

“Americans should heed our #travelwarning and avoid North Korea. We only have a handful of former Presidents.

Kudos to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip J. Crowley for having the guts to add some wry humor in there . . .

So, Gabon’s president has decided to diversify the economy . . . from oil to palm oil.  You . . . have . . . got . . . to . . . be . . . joking.  First, you are trading one primary commodity for another – in other words, the economic problems of price instability and complete dependence on the consumption of others are not in any way addressed by this shift.  This is not diversification, this is retrenchment to a commodity that the British colonial government more or less stopped promoting in relatively nearby Ghana by 1920!  And don’t tell me about biofuels – palm oil suffers from the same problems as nearly every other form of biofuel, in that it is at best carbon-neutral in and of itself, but requires energy to be converted to usable fuel . . . thus making it carbon positive (i.e. a net carbon emitter).  The market for biofuels of this type is not really there yet, so this is not going to fly all that well.

Second, Gabon is home to a significant amount of high quality, old growth rainforest – home to all kinds of species not seen elsewhere, and part of the equatorial belt of rainforests that suck up 18% of annual global carbon emissions.  The last thing we need is to see Gabon trading this forested area for palm plantations.  One need only look to the situation in Indonesia, where this exact conversion is taking place, to see the kinds of fraud and environmental damage that this shift to a “benign” crop is creating.

Gabon desperately needs a new path to the future, but palm oil is not that path.  Oh, and BBC: some level of analysis that points out any of these issues would have been nice . . .

Case 1: when you fail to define your basic terms correctly.

Laurie A. Garrett, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tried to write an interesting piece about climate change and food security recently.  Her case is compelling, though she draws far too heavily on a few high profile examples of possible climate impacts on food supply without providing appropriate caveats about the difference between climate change (a trend over time) and climate variability (which can be one-off events, or the byproduct of a larger trend).  This is somewhat standard fare in the popular media, as such caveats really don’t make for good reading.

What got my attention was Garrett’s complete failure to properly define food security.  She argues “The overwrought phrase “food security” connotes literally obtaining sufficient calories and nutrients to stay alive.”  Well, maybe in 1980.  Since then, a tremendous amount of work (to which I have made a very small contribution) has expanded this definition dramatically – food security is about access and entitlement to food and other livelihoods resources – in other words, food security is more than enough calories on hand – you also have to have rights of access to those calories, or you are out of luck.

Why is this a problem in her article?  Well, Garrett is trying to draw a link between climate change a food prices . . . which are presumed to hit the global poor the hardest.  However, rising prices are only a part of the food security story.  If we don’t know people’s rights of entitlement to the calories they need, then it becomes hard to say if we have enough or not enough food available.

For example, let’s assume that a Ghanaian husband and wife have three children – one girl and two boys.  The household needs, at a basal level around 6000 calories a day to meet basic needs.  We can go to their farm, and measure the food they eat, and get a caloric figure.  Perhaps that figure comes back at 6500 calories per day.  This is not enough to say that this household, and all its members are food secure.  Does the wife and her girl child, have the same rights to food as the husband and boys, or must the females wait for the men to eat their fill, before eating whatever remains?  If the females do not have the same rights of access, it may be that the husband and boys are more than food secure, while the wife and her girls are not.

Certainly, it is useful to know where there simply isn’t any food around – but even this is tricky.  Most people forget that Ethiopia was actually increasing its agricultural exports across its famous mid-1980s famines.  It’s just that the food was sold overseas for foreign currency, which was then used to pay off their national debt . . . as the Ethiopian population starved.

This article addresses but one part of the global food security equation – not enough to make sweeping claims of what is to come.

I’m from New Hampshire, and most of the time I’m proud of it.  And then there are the other times, such as when I find out that every Republican candidate for Judd Gregg’s senate seat says that human-induced global warming has not been proven.  Really?

What offends me here is not that some people might want to debate the human component of climate change – there has been quite a bit of that in the comments section of this blog.  I think that intelligent, reasoned debate on this subject that is grounded in evidence is completely fair game for discussion, etc.  Further, this sort of debate serves to push research forward, and refine what we know and do not know about climate change and its human impacts.

What bothers me here is that none of these candidates is grounding this stance in evidence in any way – this is pure politics, pandering to a lowest-common-denominator fear of change crowd.  And New Hampshire has a hell of a lot to lose from this – climate change is increasing climate variability (hence the 100 year floods referenced in the link above) which presents challenges not only to people’s property and safety, but also to the economy of the state.  New Hampshire is heavily driven by tourist dollars, and tourism is heavily driven by skiing.  Skiing relies on sub-freezing weather and adequate precipitation (even I know that snowmakers do not make desirable snow), both of which are becoming less predictable.  By failing to have a reasoned discussion about this issue, based on facts about what we do and do not know – and the likely outcomes for New Hampshire, all of these candidates have staked out an irresponsible position that calls into question their fitness to represent the state at the national level.

Sorry for the lack of posts. I’m mid-move to DC, without home Internet. I’m hanging on by my iPhone. I’ll be back at it, once I have a place to sit down.

Well, the markets seem to have faith in biofuels – two companies working on this idea have filed for IPOs in the past week.  Both are interesting, though for different reasons.  Gevo is interesting not for its choice of source material (still using corn, wheat and sugarcane), but for the fact that it is turning these sources into isobutanol, which as Martin LaMonica notes

“can be used as a solvent, blended to make jet fuel or other liquid fuels, or used as a raw material for plastics or rubber.”

Diversifying the products that might come from cellulosic sources is very interesting, and hints at directions we might take toward a post-petroleum world.  The big drawback: they are still stuck using food crops as their source material for fuel.  Elsewhere on this blog I have noted that this sort of sourcing of our fuel has significant ramifications for the global food supply, taking out perhaps too much slack in a time of environmental uncertainty (let alone new economic tools in the commodities markets).

All this makes the other IPO filing, PetroAlgae, much more interesting.  They are working with algae as a source material for their fuel.  Algae doesn’t take up arable land, isn’t one of our current food crops, and can be grown in a wide range of environments.  If they can make this work, we might have something interesting there.

Let’s all remember, though, that biofuels don’t really fix the greenhouse problems our current development pathways are generating.  At best, biofuels are carbon neutral – carbon goes into the plant, is released when plant is converted to energy, rinse, repeat).  However, to get the plant to a state that works as a fuel requires energy – that energy has to come from somewhere, and therefore has a carbon footprint.  So biofuels may not be as bad as coal, but completely clean they are not.  The days of the guilt-free consumption of carbon-neutral goods derived from algae are not yet here . . .

Advanced biofuels maker Gevo files to go public via CNET

Algae fuel maker PetroAlgae files to go public via CNET

and I know it, because news stories like this one about the flooding in Niger hit me a completely different way now – previously, I would have thought about how this could be teachable, and even how it might relate to some research ideas . . . now, I recall interviews from April with people in my new Bureau at USAID where we discussed the looming food crisis in Niger.  In mid-September, this won’t be a teachable moment – this will be a fire drill for which I have some degree of responsibility.  Sobering.

Incidentally, this is another example of the challenges that face those of us working at the intersection of environment and development.  The long-term (last four-five decades) signal for precipitation is in steady decline.  It is hard to say if this is a visible outcome of climate change, mostly because we have a lot of trouble understanding the mechanics of the West African climate (for those so inclined, there are some issues with the teleconnections from ENSO and the influence of the NAO).

Dunkwa (Ghana) weather station precipitation figures 1963-2000 (source: Ghana Meteorological Service)

This figure (from my upcoming book) illustrates the real problem, though – the long-term decline is clear at this weather station (the closest one to my research area that is not parked right on the beach), but more striking is the variability around the centerline.  While this station is not showing any real trend toward greater variability, many other places in West Africa are – hence the massive, surprising flooding we are seeing in Niger, despite a long-term trend toward less precipitation in the region.  People forget that there are two key variables that shape precipitation outcomes – amount and timing.

This is probably the hardest part of the job – thinking about how to plan for increasing unpredictability and variability.  Trends are easy, assuming their mechanics are understood and therefore somewhat predictable.  If I know there will be 10% less rainfall in a particular place by a particular year, I can go about figuring out what the biophysical, economic and social impacts of that change might be.  However, it is a hell of a lot harder to plan for 10% more variability by a given year (assuming we could even quantify rising variability in such a manner).  Well, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be interesting . . . and someone else would have solved it already.